Full list: Agriculture in the News

NPR: Follow The Money: Congress Uses Budget Bill To Rewrite Food Policies

By Allison Aubrey and Dan Charles
December 16, 2015
Full Article

When lawmakers — and lobbyists — use the budget bill as a vehicle to slip in new policies or upend regulations, it reminds me of my kids at the grocery store.

They ask for Nutella. I say “No.” But when I’m not looking, they slip it into the cart. And it’s only the next day I see it slathered on toast.

So, here are some examples of food and agriculture provisions that have been slipped into the omnibus budget bill just unveiled by congressional leaders. So far, this is just a draft. But the bill appears likely to pass in both chambers of Congress, and President Obama has indicated he’s inclined to sign it into law.

One provision would give grocery stores and other food retailers more time to comply with regulations that will require them to post calorie information on menus. This provision could benefit pizza chains that have joined together to lobby for flexibility. The industry has argued that it would be too tough to comply, because a pizza has millions of possible topping — and calorie — combinations, and few customers actually order in-store anywhere. (The industry spells out its case in this video.)

Another example: a provision to change FDA policy on “partially hydrogenated oils so that the baking industries and small businesses are not subject to frivolous lawsuits.” As we reported in June, the Grocery Manufacturers Association has said it would ask the FDA to allow some low-level uses of trans fats in certain products.

Another issue: school lunch regulations. One provision gives schools flexibility in how they implement nutrition standards aimed at putting more whole grains on kids’ plates, as spelled out in the Healthy, Hungry-Free, Kids Act. Another provision could halt further reductions in the sodium content of school lunches.

It’s not uncommon for the spending bill to include a grab bag of nonbudgetary items thrown in at the last minute. And depending on what side of an issue you’re on, it’s either a highly effective process or an unfair way to assert influence and undermine laws.

Take the whole grain issue. The School Nutrition Association, which represents school food administrators and has been lobbying for these changes, views this as a win. In its view, the changes provide schools with the flexibility needed to keep their cafeterias operating in the black.

“By maintaining menu planning flexibility in the Omnibus Appropriations Bill, Congress is helping schools manage some of the challenges they have encountered under updated regulations,” Diane Pratt-Heavner, a spokeswoman for the SNA, told us by email.

The bill also will abolish the requirement that meat labels disclose where an animal was raised and slaughtered. Big meat packers have been pushing for this change, as have foreign countries. The World Trade Organization has ruled that these labels hurt farmers in Canada and Mexico, and those countries were set to impose up to $1 billion in retaliatory tariffs on U.S. goods. Repealing the law should end this trade dispute.

The Food and Drug Administration is also happy. It just finished drawing up new rules for farms and food processors, but it needs money to enforce those rules. This bill would give the agency close to what it requested — an increase of $104.5 million — to beef up its food-safety operations.

Supporters of Vermont’s GMO labeling law, which is set to go into effect next year, breathed a sigh of relief. Some big food companies have been pushing Congress to pass a law that would block state attempts, like Vermont’s, to require labeling of food made from genetically modified crops. There were rumors that the spending package would contain such language, but it does not.

The spending bill may also delay the arrival of genetically engineered salmon, which just got a green light from the Food and Drug Administration. There’s a provision in the bill that blocks any commercial sale of those salmon until the FDA finalizes its guidelines for labeling GMOs. Finalizing those guidelines could take months — or even years.


EcoWatch: Congress Keeps Anti-GMO Labeling Rider Out of Spending Bill

12/16/15
By the Center for Food Safety
Full Article

Center for Food Safety today praised Congress for not including a policy rider in the must-pass federal omnibus spending bill that would have blocked states from implementing mandatory genetically engineered (GE) food labeling laws. Three states—Connecticut, Maine and Vermont—have passed such laws, with Vermont’s slated be to be the first to go into effect in July 2016. All three democratically passed laws would have been nullified, while any future state GE labeling legislation would have been preempted. More than 30 states have introduced bills to labeling GE foods in just the past few years.

“We are very pleased that Congress has apparently decided not to undermine Americans’ right to know about the food they purchase and feed their families,” said Andrew Kimbrell, executive director of Center for Food Safety. “Adding a rider to the budget bill that would nullify state laws requiring labeling and even forbidden federal agencies from mandating labeling would have been profoundly undemocratic and nothing short of legislative malfeasance. We will remain vigilant over the coming days and into the next legislative session to ensure our right to know is protected.”

The omnibus spending bill does include language previously agreed to by the Senate Appropriations Committee requiring that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) develop guidelines for mandatory labeling of GE salmon and prevent its sale until such labeling is in effect.

In July, the House of Representatives passed H.R. 1599, dubbed by opponents the “Denying Americans the Right to Know (DARK) Act,” which preempts state and local authority to label and regulate GE foods. Instead, the bill sought to codify a voluntary labeling system approach, block FDA from ever implementing mandatory GE food labeling and allow food companies to continue to make misleading “natural” claims for foods that contain GE ingredients. The Senate chose not to take up that bill, despite heavy pressure from the food and biotechnology industries.

Anti-labeling interests then began pushing for the inclusion of the preemption rider in the must pass spending bill. Numerous Senators vocally opposed the inclusion of the preemption rider, successfully keeping it out of the bill.

“In the absence of federal leadership, states have led the way by passing legislation intended to prevent consumer deception and give consumers the right to know,” said Kimbrell. “We thank those Members of Congress, as well as the thousands of Americans who contacted their Senators recently, for preventing this grossly unethical rider from seeing daylight.”

By an overwhelming margin, American voters say consumers should have the right to know if their food is genetically modified, with 89 percent in support of mandatory GE labeling, according to a new national poll. Nearly the same number of consumers would like to see the labels in an easy to read format.

Center for Food Safety supports bipartisan legislation introduced by Sen. Boxer and Rep. DeFazio called the Genetically Engineered Food Right-to-Know Act, which would require that food manufacturers label foods that contain genetically modified ingredients. This common sense bill would guarantee all Americans the right to know what is in their foods while respecting the need by companies for a uniform, federal standard.


VT Digger: Feds discuss new food safety rules in Brattleboro

Dec. 15, 2015
by

BRATTLEBORO – The range of discussion Monday morning at Brattleboro’s Latchis Theatre – from questions about butternut squash to concerns about global imports – shows the sweep of the federal government’s new food-safety rules.

But as federal and state officials worked to explain some of those rules to attendees who traveled from at least six other states, there was a common theme: More federal funding is needed for public education.

Vermont Agriculture Secretary Chuck Ross wants to ensure that “the most significant rewrite of our food safety laws in 70 years” is understood by and fairly applied to the wide variety of farmers and food producers in the Green Mountain State.

“If this partnership is going to work – and that means work for the producers and the manufacturers – we need to have the FDA and the state partners fully equipped and able to implement this law in the ways that were envisioned,” Ross said.

The meeting was convened to discuss three of the seven new rules created under authority of the Food Safety Modernization Act, approved by Congress in late 2010 and signed by President Barack Obama the following month.

The new law is designed to curb food-borne illness, which the U.S. Food and Drug Administration says affects one in six people in the United States – about 48 million people – annually. The law shifts “the focus of federal regulators from responding to contamination to preventing it.”

The FDA spent years developing new food-safety rules, which are available at www.fda.gov/FSMA.

Mike Taylor, the FDA’s deputy commissioner for foods and veterinary medicine, said the rules first were proposed in 2013. But an initial round of public comment showed that there were “significant issues,” Taylor said, so the FDA went back to work – in part by taking a New England tour.

The result was an amended set of rules on preventive controls for human food; preventive controls for animal food; and produce safety. The three regulations were discussed at Monday’s meeting for the Northeast region.

Elements of the “human food” rule include mandatory establishment of written food-safety plans that include hazard analysis – which must take into account “known or reasonably foreseeable biological, chemical and physical hazards” – as well as “risk-based preventive controls” governing such matters as allergens, sanitation and the food-supply chain.

The produce safety rule includes water quality regulations aimed at controlling E.coli; guidance for applying raw manure and compost; requirements to prevent contamination of sprouts; and regulations for worker training, health and hygiene; among other topics.

One lesson learned from the FDA’s New England tour in 2013, Taylor told the Brattleboro audience, was “just how truly diverse our food system is.” And he promised that, in implementing the new food-safety rules, protecting that diversity will be “a central theme of our work.”

Taylor recalled a recent admonition from Ross: “You must educate before you regulate.” And he’s promising to take that even further when it comes to the Food Safety Modernization Act, pledging that the FDA will be “educating not only before, but while we regulate.”

To that end, the FDA is working on guidance documents that will spell out how food producers and handlers should comply with the new law. Officials also are working to expand their partnerships with states, with Taylor noting that half of the FDA’s inspections already are conducted by states under contract with the federal agency. The Food Safety Modernization Act authorizes federal grants for training, inspections, lab-capacity expansion and other activities at the state level.

And Taylor said the federal government, in an attempt to ensure a level playing field for U.S. farmers and food producers who must abide by the new rules, is going to change the way it regulates imported food. The FDA says 15 percent of the U.S. food supply is imported, including 60 percent of fresh fruits and vegetables and 80 percent of the country’s seafood.

Currently, the agency focuses on inspections of food samples at points of entry into the country. Under the Food Safety Modernization Act, the FDA will be auditing food importers and also conducting more overseas inspections at farms and manufacturing facilities, Taylor said.

But all of those changes require money. The Obama administration reportedly has requested a $109.5 million increase in FDA funding, but Congress has not yet settled on a number.

“We cannot build an entirely new system without new resources. And so that’s really what’s at stake in the budget process that’s going on,” Taylor said. “It’s not just about building up the FDA. It’s largely about investing in the food system itself.”

Officials at Monday’s meeting praised Vermont’s congressional delegation for making funding for the FDA a priority. U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., a ranking member of the Senate Appropriations Committee backed the FDA’s funding request in fiscal 2016 and will again in 2017 process, spokesman David Carle said.

The senator “agrees that sufficient funding is crucial for these new regulations to be rolled out in a way that works for Vermont food producers, that protects public health and that does not saddle the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food & Markets with a large unfunded mandate,” Carle said.

In the meantime, organizations like the University of Vermont Extension are working to help food producers cope with new rules. Brattleboro-based UVM Extension professor Vern Grubinger said that, due to exemptions for smaller operations, there are “a relatively small number of farms” in Vermont that will have to comply with the new produce rule.

But Grubinger believes that “the marketplace will demand that all growers do something to address food safety.” So the Extension, along with the state Agency of Agriculture and others, will be working to help farmers understand “what they need to do both to comply with FSMA and to maintain their markets,” Grubinger said after Monday’s meeting.

One way for Vermont’s smaller vegetable and berry producers to help bolster food-safety practices is a new pilot program called Community Accreditation for Produce Safety. It’s a voluntary, online effort that will offer non-regulatory accreditation through the Vermont Vegetable and Berry Association, Grubinger said. More information is available at https://practicalproducesafetyvt.wordpress.com.

Such efforts may be critical given the growth and prominence of Vermont’s food and agricultural business sectors. Ross told the Latchis Theatre crowd that there have been 4,200 food and agriculture jobs created in the state over the past five years.

“We’ve been seeing this part of the economy grow by over 6 percent in that last five years, which is well above the statewide average,” Ross said. “So this is real economics for the state of Vermont, and quite significant.”


Vermont Business Magazine: Welch, Leahy, Sanders join bipartisan challenge of new FDA cheese standard

12/4/15
Full Article

Vermont Business Magazine Representative Peter Welch (D-VT), Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT), and Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) are leading a bicameral, bipartisan coalition in Congress challenging a new US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) standard that could ban many age-old recipes for raw milk cheese and severely harm artisan cheese producers in Vermont. In a December 3rd letter sent to FDA Deputy Commissioner Michael Taylor, the lawmakers express their concerns about FDA’s non-toxigenic E. coli standard for raw milk cheeses, and insist that the agency listen to feedback from cheese producers who would be harmed by the more stringent standard.  In addition, they question whether a new FDA standard calling for a thousand-fold decrease in the presence of non-toxigenic E. coli in raw milk cheeses would actually benefit public health, whether the standards are scientifically sound, and if they were adopted in an open and transparent way.

The implementation of a more stringent non-toxigenic E. coli standard for raw milk cheeses is inconsistent with internationally-recognized standards. Non-toxigenic E. coli are typically not harmful to humans. The legislators believe that this new standard seriously threatens the artisan cheese industry in Vermont and across the country without evidence of risk to public health.

Welch, Leahy, Sanders and their colleagues wrote: “Cheese production is an important, and growing, component of our nation’s value-added agricultural economy. It is an economic driver in rural areas across the country, producing good jobs, internationally-recognized brands, and award-winning cheeses.

“We are concerned that this standard could have a detrimental effect on cheese producers in our districts, and we ask that you carefully consider their feedback and that of the scientific community, and whether there is a commensurate risk and public safety benefit with a more stringent standard.”

The letter can be read in its entirety here (link is external).

The FDA standard specifically seeks to limit the level of non-toxigenic E. coli found in raw milk cheeses from 10,000 most probable number (MPN)/gram in 2009 to 10 MPN/gram. The standard was contained in the latest edition of the FDA Compliance Program Guidance Manual and Compliance Policy Guide.

“I am delighted that the Vermont congressional delegation and their colleagues in the House and Senate are challenging FDA’s establishment of non-toxigenic E. coli standards for cheese. The American artisan cheese industry is witnessing extraordinary growth in the number of producers and products with corresponding improvements in quality and safety. Our American artisan cheeses rival the very best cheeses produced in Europe, and both domestic and imported cheeses are in high consumer demand and are creating economic opportunities for cheese makers and retailers both large and small. At a time when the Food Safety Modernization Act is requiring us to harmonize our microbiological standards with those of our international trading partners, this issue requires rigorous scientific analysis and international dialogue. These standards are negatively impacting both domestic and imported artisan cheeses. As someone who has conducted extensive research to improve the safety of artisan cheeses, I can conclusively state that there is no scientific basis for these standards,” said Dr. Catherine W. Donnelly, Professor of Nutrition and Food Science, The University of Vermont.

In addition to the Vermont delegation, the letter was signed by Senators Kelly Ayotte (R-NH), Tammy Baldwin (D-WI), Ron Johnson (R-WI), Angus S. King Jr. (I-ME), Christopher Murphy (D-CT), Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) and Ron Wyden (D-OR), and by Representatives Tony Cardenas (D-CA), Joe Courtney (D-CT), Peter DeFazio (D-OR), Morgan Griffith (R-VA), Richard Hanna (R-NY), Jared Huffman (D-CA), Bill Huizenga (R-MI), Ron Kind (D-WI), Ann Kuster (D-NH), Chellie Pingree (D-ME), Mark Pocan (D-WI), Reid Ribble (R-WI), Jim Sensenbrenner (R-WI) and Randy Weber (R-TX).


Forbes: Ben & Jerry’s Commits To Building Non-GMO Supply Chains From Scratch

12/3/15
By Steve Banker
Full Article

Last year, Ben & Jerry’s celebrated a milestone: all the plant-based ingredients in their ice cream, yogurt, and sorbet products transitioned to non-genetically modified (non-GMO) sources. Now, they’re working with dozens of other food companies to build up non-GMO commodity supply chains across the country to support this growing sector of the food industry. According to Andy Barker, the social mission strategy and policy manager for Ben & Jerry’s, getting to a non-GMO supply chain is difficult because the existing logistics infrastructure for major commodity crops like corn and soy “is built for undifferentiated crops.”

Non-GMO supply chains need infrastructure that can segregate non-GMO products. Storage bins will need to be the right size, in the right locations to support their family farmers, and close to the right transportation infrastructure. If non-GMO crops are put in rail cars, those cars will need to be thoroughly cleaned before accepting the non-GMO crops. When the commodities are processed, those plants will also need to thoroughly wash down their lines before processing the non-GMO crops.

Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are organisms that have had their genetic makeup altered through genetic engineering in a way that does not occur through traditional cross-breeding. Increasing numbers of consumers are worried that food that has been genetically modified poses health risks.

Ben & Jerry’s is owned by Unilever – a global, public, multinational food and consumer goods company. But Ben & Jerry’s still retains its funky roots. Ben & Jerry’s is still headquartered in Vermont where they were founded. Despite being owned by Unilever, Ben & Jerry’s is a certified B Corp, a type of for-profit corporate entity whose goals include, in addition to profits, positive impacts on society and the environment.

Ben & Jerry’s non-GMO goals include:

    1. Committing to sourcing non-GMO ingredients and being transparent with consumers about their products.

The first goal includes insuring the ingredients – the sugar, the chocolate bits, marshmallow, caramel, etc. – they add into the ice cream are made from non-GMO crops. Marshmallow, for example, might use corn syrup as a sweetener. Ben & Jerry’s needs to insure the corn that goes into that corn syrup, comes from non-GMO seeds. The sugar Ben & Jerry’s uses must come from sugar cane, avoiding GMO sugar beets in the supply chain. And so on.

According to Ben & Jerry’s 2014 sustainability report, the company began the process of sourcing all of the ingredients they put in ice cream and related products from non-GMO sources in 2012. Over the course of 2014, “94.96% of our ingredients, by volume, were non-GMO by the original seed source for that ingredient.” By the end of 2014, Ben & Jerry’s had transitioned all its plant-based ingredients to non-GMO sources. This took a year longer than they expected, but it is good progress when you consider that GMOs are very widely found in key commodity crops grown in the U.S. In the U.S., according to USDA, between 88%-95% of all corn, soy, canola, and sugar beet are genetically modified.

But producing food that avoids GMOs entirely in the extended supply chain also involves making sure the dairy cows eat non-GMO feed. This is proving to be a tougher goal for Ben & Jerry’s. Their sustainability report admits that the “Vermont milk and cream that our family farmers supply to us is not organic. This means that it is almost certain that some portion of the cows’ feed contains GMO ingredients, such as corn and soy.”

To build a non-GMO dairy supply chain you need collaboration among farmers, handlers, processors, and distributors. Building this non-GMO supply chain will give consumers choice, but it will only become possible when the family dairy farmers in this supply chain can find competitively priced non-GMO feed for their cows and have access to high performing non-GMO seeds to plant in their fields.

This is where Green America has a key role to play. Green America builds “Innovation Networks.” In other words, they bring together diverse groups of stakeholders to solve complex sustainability problems that no individual business, organization, or leader could solve by themselves. Green America, Ben & Jerry’s, and other value chain players, have been at this since 2013. Errol Schweizer, executive global grocery coordinator at Whole Foods, said: “What they’re doing here is the first effort I’ve seen to really deal with the whole system. Everyone is so focused on their part of the supply chain, so no one can see the big systemic problems. The process … is exactly what we need to create real change.”

Mr. Barker does not believe that verification – the testing that will need to go on at multiple stages in the non-GMO supply chain – will be a major cost. “The major cost will be segregating non-GMO product at the multiple stages of the supply chain.” In many cases, non-GMO grain farmers will need to invest in on-farm storage, rather than continuing to send their crop to local elevators. The farmer will then need to find buyers specializing in non-GMO crops and figure out how to work with carriers that can transport these commodities without “contaminating” them. “Contamination” in this context refers to some very small percentage of the commodity that is being stored and shipped that is allowed to be intermixed with GMO crops.

Clearly, growing non-GMO supply will involve investments across the value chain. Part of the work includes convincing the various actors in this chain that non-GMO is not a “passing fad” so that they will invest. Mr. Barker believes the consumer data is compelling: according to a report issued by the Hartman Group, 40% of consumers are avoiding or reducing GMOs in their diet.

An important part of the conversation that has taken place among the diverse group of stakeholders convened by Green America has centered on standards that support non-GMO supply at scale. Without definitions and standards, it is hard for actors in this emerging supply chain to know what to target in terms of purity. “Defining at a high level what a non-GMO (consists of) is easy. But when you get to the level of how much contamination is allowed, it gets harder.”

“It is much easier to innovate within the boundaries of your own company,” according to Mr. Barker, “than across an extended supply chain.” But in this case what is being attempted is even bigger. Green America participants seek to build a new non-GMO supply chain from the ground up. This may seem like an almost Herculean task, but Mr. Barker pointed out that Green America has had success in doing just this in the paper recycling and solar industries.

I expect this new value chain will come into being within a few years. When big players, like Ben & Jerry’s, make new sustainability commitments, their buying power usually means that over time, these goals can be achieved.


Farm Aid Quilt Features Rural Vermont

See Rural Vermont’s ‘Quilt Square’ here.

Rural Vermont works on tough and often controversial issues in a fight to change the system for family farmers and rural communities, in Vermont and beyond. They have traveled many of the same roads as Farm Aid over the past 30 years—including sending a large delegation of Vermont farmers to the United Farmers and Ranchers Congress, organized by Farm Aid in St. Louis in 1986. This life-changing experience gave Rural Vermont’s delegates a chance to meet other family farmers from around the country who were facing many of the same struggles. Energized by this solidarity, they returned to Vermont feeling more powerful and more able to fight for their rights.

More recently Rural Vermont began sharing the stories of a new generation of farmers through storytelling events that illustrate farmers’ struggles and successes to the public. Such events inspire support for farmers and agricultural policies that are fair for everyone.

Rural Vermont says, “The generous grants we have received [from Farm Aid] over three decades have, most importantly, enabled us to grow our grassroots leadership of farmers and activists who, in turn, have helped Vermont become a national leader in the good food movement.” These types of grants are crucial to the organization’s success: “In a world where resources for this kind of work are increasingly scarce, and many funders choose to play it safe, Farm Aid’s willingness to be bold and put the needs of family farmers in the spotlight is exceptional.”

 


Burlington Free Press: Food industry pushing to thwart GMO labeling by end of year

MARY CLARE JALONICK, Associated Press
December 8, 2015
Full Article

WASHINGTON  — Food companies are mounting an aggressive year-end push to head off mandatory labeling of genetically modified foods.

The food industry wants the labeling to be voluntary, and it hopes to get a provision in a massive spending bill that Republicans and Democrats want to wrap up this week. If that becomes law, states could not require companies to disclose whether their products contain genetically modified organisms, or GMOs.

The House passed similar legislation earlier this year, but the Senate has not yet acted. Even so, food companies and farm groups say Congress must step in before Vermont becomes the first state to require GMO labels next summer.

The country’s largest food companies say genetically modified foods are safe and that labels would be misleading. They argue that its costs would be passed on to consumers.

Supporters of labeling counter that consumers have a right to know what’s in their foods, and Congress shouldn’t be trying to pre-empt states. They have pushed state legislatures to pass labeling laws, with the eventual goal of having a federal mandatory label set by the Food and Drug Administration.

Genetically modified seeds are engineered in laboratories to have certain traits, like resistance to herbicides. The majority of the country’s corn and soybean crop is now genetically modified, with much of that going to animal feed. Corn and soybeans are also made into popular processed food ingredients like high-fructose corn syrup, corn starch and soybean oil. The food industry says about 75 percent to 80 percent of foods contain genetically modified ingredients.

The FDA has said GMOs on the market now are safe, and the federal government does not support mandatory labels.

Supporters of labeling are trying to fight the industry effort with television ads in the Washington area and in Vermont that reminds consumers about the FDA’s recent approval of genetically modified salmon, which would not be labeled.

“If your state wants to label GMOs, Congress is trying a year-end sneak attack to block your right to label,” the ad says.

If passed, the industry-backed legislation would pre-empt any state labeling requirements. So far, Vermont is the only state set to require labeling and its law would take effect in July 2016 if it survives a legal challenge from the food industry. Maine and Connecticut have also passed laws requiring labeling, but those measures don’t take effect unless neighboring states follow suit.

“It’s about states having the right to do this,” said Andrew Kimbrell of the Center for Food Safety, the group behind the ad.

Michigan Sen. Debbie Stabenow, the top Democrat on the Senate Agriculture Committee, said she thinks the issue is too controversial for the year-end spending bill, which lawmakers must pass before leaving for the holidays. She and Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., have been working to find a compromise.

Hoeven said he has been heavily lobbied on the issue by food companies.

“I am still trying to come up with a compromise that brings both sides together, and it doesn’t seem like we’ll have that by year-end,” he said.

The legislation that passed the House was sponsored by Rep. Mike Pompeo, R-Kansas. In addition to blocking states from requiring the labels, it would step up FDA oversight by requiring that any new genetically engineered products be reviewed by the agency before they can be sold. That process is now voluntary for most modified foods.


The Washington Post Op-Ed: A secret weapon to fight climate change: dirt


December 4, 2015
Full Article

 Debbie Barker is the international programs director at the Center for Food Safety. Michael Pollan is the John S. and James L. Knight professor of journalism at the University of California at Berkeley.

When Will Allen is asked to name the most beautiful part of his Vermont farm, he doesn’t talk about the verdant, rolling hills or easy access to the Connecticut River. Though the space is a picturesque postcard of the agrarian idyll, Allen points down, to the dirt. “This precious resource not only grows food,” he says, “but is one of the best methods we have for sequestering carbon.”

We think of climate change as a consequence of burning fossil fuels. But a third of the carbon in the atmosphere today used to be in the soil, and modern farming is largely to blame. Practices such as the overuse of chemicals, excessive tilling and the use of heavy machinery disturb the soil’s organic matter, exposing carbon molecules to the air, where they combine with oxygen to create carbon dioxide. Put another way: Human activity has turned the living and fertile carbon system in our dirt into a toxic atmospheric gas.

It’s possible to halt and even reverse this process through better agricultural policies and practices. Unfortunately, the world leaders who gathered in Paris this past week have paid little attention to the critical links between climate change and agriculture. That’s a huge mistake and a missed opportunity. Our unsustainable farming methods are a central contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. Climate change, quite simply, cannot be halted without fixing agriculture.

The industrialization of farming has allowed farmers to grow more crops more quickly. But modern techniques have also wreaked havoc on the earth, water and atmosphere. Intense plowing, for example, has introduced more oxygen into the soil, boosting the microbes that convert organic matter into carbon dioxide. The quest to wring every last dollar out of fields has put pressure on farmers to rely on chemical fertilizers. This often leaves fields more bare between growing seasons, allowing carbon to escape into the air. Scientists estimate that cultivated soil has lost 50 to 70 percent of its carbon, speeding up climate change.

That loss has significantly degraded soil health, reducing our ability to grow food. Median crop yields are likely to decline by about 2 percent per decade through 2100, according to the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. At the same time, the world’s population is projected to jump from 7 billion to 9 billion by 2050.

Water availability is also at risk. Currently, 1.6 billion people live in regions facing severe water scarcity; that number is expected to rise to 2.8 billion by 2025. Agriculture accounts for a whopping 70 percent of all water consumption. That’s in large part because degraded soil doesn’t absorb water efficiently. Instead, water sits on top of the ground and runs off (along with farm chemicals) into nearby waterways, creating toxic nitrogen “dead zones.”

Remarkably, though, restoring carbon to the soil is not nearly as complicated as rethinking our transportation systems or replacing coal with renewable energy. Innovative farmers such as Allen already know the recipe.

He and his team place “cover crops” in their fields, planting things like oats, rye and beans between rows of vegetables. This practice keeps carbon, nitrogen and other organic nutrients in the soil. “Keeping as much ground covered with plants as long as possible allows photosynthesis to draw down atmospheric carbon into soils,” Allen says. A bare field, in contrast, represents a waste of photosynthetic potential. Allen also composts, limits plowing and avoids synthetic chemicals like nitrogen fertilizers. In combination, these efforts have increased soil organic matter by 3 to 4 percent in just three years. Allen also sells some of his cover crops, adding farm income.

Allen’s results are not unusual. Studies have shown that cover cropping, crop rotation and no-till farming could restore global soil health while significantly decreasing farms’ carbon footprint. Some scientists project that 75 to 100 parts per million of CO2 could be drawn out of the atmosphere over the next century if existing farms, pastures and forestry systems were managed to maximize carbon sequestration. That’s significant when you consider that CO2 levels passed 400 ppm this spring. Scientists agree that the safe level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is 350 ppm.

Regenerative farming would also increase the fertility of the land, making it more productive and better able to absorb and hold water, a critical function especially in times of climate-related floods and droughts. Carbon-rich fields require less synthetic nitrogen fertilizer and generate more productive crops, cutting farmer expenses.

So why aren’t we instituting policies to encourage this kind of “carbon farming”? For one thing, the science is new and not yet widely disseminated. Additionally, most of the incentives built into America’s agricultural policies are based on maximizing yield, often at the expense of soil health.

Current federal policy, for example, limits the growing season for cover crops on the theory that they waste farmers’ time and resources on products that can’t be sold. Thus, farmers are denied full crop insurance, price supports and subsidies if they grow cover crops beyond a specified period of time. But viewing cover crops as a benefit instead of an impediment to cash crops would be the kind of climate-smart policy we need. And, as farmers such as Allen have learned, some cover crops can also be commercialized.

Giving farmers incentives to switch from synthetic nitrogen fertilizers to organic fertilizers could also lead to healthier soil. Scientists at the University of California at Berkeley working with Marin County ranchers have found that applying a single layer of compost, less than an inch thick, to rangelands stimulates a burst of microbial and plant growth that sequesters dramatic amounts of carbon in the soil — more than 1.5 tons per acre. And research has shown that this happens not just once, but year after year. This is a win-win strategy, both for the climate and the food system, since the additional carbon in the soil means more grass for cattle and more profit for ranchers. If the practice were replicated on half the rangeland area of California, it would sequester enough carbon to offset 42 million metric tons of CO2 emissions.

The possibilities are endless. What if our farmers received federal subsidies not just for bushels per acre, but for carbon sequestered or acres of cover crops planted? Many such changes could be made tomorrow at the agency level; they would not require congressional action. Incentives for carbon farming could also bridge the political chasm between ranchers, farmers and environmentalists. Even those farmers and ranchers who don’t believe in climate change desire healthy soil, high productivity and lush grasslands.

America is not there quite yet, but other countries are pointing the way. This year, the French government launched the 4 Per 1000 initiative, the first international effort to restore carbon to the soil. Under the proposal, nations would commit to increasing the carbon in their cultivated lands by 0.4 percent per year. The French calculate that this would halt the annual increase in carbon dioxide emissions. Some emerging soil science estimates that we could store 50 to 75 percent of current global carbon emissions in the soil.

In the United States, when the Dust Bowl crisis of the 1930s literally blew soil across the country, our government responded by implementing agriculture policies to ameliorate the problem. With the stakes even higher today, our politicians can once again enact policies to reward practices that rebuild soil carbon.


Randolph Herald: Farm Organization Marks 30 Years of Making a Difference

Rural Vermont Fills Bethel Town Hall For Anniversary
By Lisa Sacks Warhol
11/26/15
Full Article

When Rural Vermont was founded by Sen. Anthony Pollina in the 1980s, farmers state- and nationwide were experiencing devastating legal and financial problems. The organization fought to save Vermont’s agricultural way of life.

In the 30 years since, Rural Vermont has continued fighting—for GMO labeling laws, for fair dairy prices, against the use of rBGH in dairy cattle, for small farmers to sell products like raw milk directly to consumers, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

The fight is never easy, but as was reiterated over and over at Sunday evening’s 30th anniversary celebration at the Bethel Town Hall, there is strength in numbers, and collective action can change minds, hearts, and laws. Rural Vermont’s membership swelled to 1000 during the event.

Emcee Susan Hayes, of The Farm of Milk & Honey in Hyde Park, welcomed a crowd that included not only Sen. Pollina, but Rep. Sandy Haas and Sen. Dick McCormack. Hayes then called on board member emeritus Dexter Randall— whose first and last names, she marveled, are both breeds of cattle—to induct several of his former colleagues as board members emeritus.

Jenny Nelson, of Home Acres Farm in East Ryegate, was the first storyteller. Formerly a legislator and a leader of Rural Vermont, and longtime agricultural adviser to Bernie Sanders, Nelson spoke warmly of the farming family she married into, of helping organize a statewide boycott of Hershey products because their milk suppliers were not being paid fairly, of working against bovine growth hormone and Monsanto. Between stories, songs with names like “These Green Mountains” and “I Am a Farmer” were beautifully played on fiddle, banjo, flute, guitar, and mandolin by Vermont musicians Colin McCaffrey, Patti Casey, and Pete Sutherland.

Next up were Lisa McCrory and Carl Russell of Earthwise Farm and Forest in Bethel. Russell began by explaining what’s eating him and what’s feeding him—a theme that carried through many of the talks. What’s eating him?

“Commercialized morality, economically justifiable ignorance and greed, and…regulations that allow consumers to abdicate any responsibility for the destruction of the rural landscape and the communities that rely on it.” With Rural Vermont, they have been activists on such issues as GMOs, onfarm slaughter, and raw milk. Russell and McCrory are partners in every sense of the word, working constantly to make their farm exemplify their message. What feeds them? Putting “time, energy, love, and drive into deepening our connection to each other, to our land, our family, our food, and our community.”

Lindsay Harris, of Mountain Home Farm in Tunbridge, a staunch advocate for raw milk, told about her experiences fighting the Agency of Agriculture to secure the right for dairy farmers to sell raw milk directly to consumers. Provisions in Act 62, she said, seemed intended to put small farmers out of business, making it illegal to sell raw milk products and permitting only sales for “fluid” consumption. But customers were eager to have raw milk, so farmers and Rural Vermont started to offer classes to teach people how to process the milk themselves.

This prompted a cease-and-desist letter from the Agency of Agriculture, accusing Rural Vermont of encouraging people to break the law. Taking the fight to the legislature, Rural Vermont won a small triumph in getting fluid consumption changed to personal consumption, but sadly, said Harris, “We are very much up against our public servants, we’re fighting just to be able to choose what we eat. Good thing were tough bastards— that’s what feeds me.”

The organization premiered its new video, “Can’t Quit When You’ve Got Good People Behind You.” Scored by Jonathan Falby of Symphony Farm in Brookfield, it gave a history of Rural Vermont’s work through the years through the myriad news articles about the organization.

Judy Clark of Applecheek Farm in Hyde Park took the stage wearing a bright red Rural Vermont T-shirt, chanting “Hey! Ho! GMOs have got to go!” She and her husband, John, farmed their land for 50 years. They went organic in 2000, and soon after, GMO crops were introduced in Vermont. For the first time, she said, “one farmer’s practice could endanger another’s.”

Rural Vermont and Clark’s persistence bore fruit when the Farmers Protection Act was established, but then, devastatingly, Gov. Douglas vetoed the FPA. Through that fight Clark learned that “one voice, joined with others, has power. In the upcoming elections, make your voice count: vote for the one candidate who can fight corporate greed and give a voice back to the people.” She peeled off her Rural Vermont T-shirt to reveal a Bernie for President shirt. The crowd roared.

Jeff Frey Ellis of Peace of Earth Farm in Albany, Vt., dedicated his poem “Cultivating Resistance” to Anthony Pollina. It compared Rural Vermont to a tree whose seed took root in Pollina’s heart.

Ellis asked Carl Russell to join him on stage to compose a poem in the moment based on the audience’s written replies to the questions “What’s Eating You? What’s Feeding You?” The farmer-poets took turns asking those questions and reading the replies, which ranged from corporate greed to governmental interference to real food, and riffed a bit on each one in a sort of performance poetry freestyle rap.

It had been a night of memories shared, hopes and dreams voiced, and gratitude expressed for farms and farmers and their way of life.


Press Connects: Hemp crops coming to New York as early as spring?

By David Hill
11/25/15
Full Article

The state Department of Agriculture and Markets has developed proposed regulations to govern experimental growing of a cultivar of cannabis, the plant most known today as the source of marijuana. Industrial hemp, as it’s sometimes known, has too little of the active ingredient  tetrahydrocannabinol, often referred to as THC, to produce a recreational high yet is seen as having enormous potential.

Hemp has edible and oil-producing seeds, and its fibrous bark and internal core can be used as a building material. Parts of the plant are used in making plastics, paper, insulation, animal bedding and cosmetics, eaten and burned as biomass fuel. It also provides a chemical seen as having medical potential.

Two state lawmakers from the Southern Tier sponsored bills to get trial plantings started: Assemblywoman Donna Lupardo, D-Endwell, and Sen. Tom O’Mara, R-Elmira.

“We are on the frontier of a major new industrial crop, and that’s why I’ve been pushing New York to get out in front of it,” Lupardo said.

Federal law was changed in the 2014 national farm-policy bill to allow states to permit hemp research. Lupardo and O’Mara sponsored bills in New York to do just that. The measure was adopted with near-unanimous support, but rules governing the experiments were not adopted in time for the 2015 growing season.

Twenty states have legislation allowing farmers to grow hemp or allowing experimental growing, according to Cherney, but Colorado and Kentucky are by far the farthest along. Kentucky, in particular, is developing a hemp industry already. It was the major hemp growing state, raising it for textile fiber primarily, in the early 20th century.

Kentucky farmers are finding hemp is a good replacement for tobacco, a major cash crop there, said Susan Cody, president of the New York Hemp Industries Association, and a Madison County farmer.

Hemp has appeal and potential for many reasons, according to Cody. It’s fairly easy to grow, and its leaves, stem and seed have many uses.

“The seed can be harvested and you can either save that for next year’s planting or people eat it and you can either shell it or eat it unshelled,” Cody said. “It’s high in omega threes and people will press it into oil and those are used for cosmetics, and people eat that, too, the oil. When you press it into oil you get a hemp meal and sometimes you can make that an animal feed a supplement for animal feed or people will make a protein powder out of it.”

The thick, woody internal stem can be combined with a binder to form blocks used as a building material. Hemp can be made into paper, its essential oils and seeds go into cosmetics, lip balm and hand cream; the car maker BMW uses it for floor mats and event door parts.

The plant has a very long tap root and can pull nutrients from deep in the soil, helping to replenish fields used for more common commodity crops like corn and soy beans. Used this way, it can also help fend off insect and fungal diseases that feed on repeated plantings of the same crops.

“It’s really kind of a huge potential here for people to specialize in certain strands and certain varieties and we’re really just kind of tip of the iceberg at this point,” Cody said.

The challenge will be to find varieties that are suited to the climate, soils and growing techniques, and to set up processing facilities, Cody said.

Legal resistance tied to the intoxicating variety of the plant remain. Initial rules required barbed-wire fencing around test parcels, which would be impractical and costly, Lupardo said. Those were eventually removed, however.

The rules the state Department of Agriculture and Markets made and published in the state register Sept. 30 require test hemp not contain more than .3 percent THC, the high-inducing ingredient, and that samples be tested at an approved lab. Any plants with more than that are to be destroyed, harvested plants have to be kept in and transported under security. Only institutions of higher education can apply for the permits, but they can contract with growers.

In Vermont, some farmers have been planting hemp using supposedly sterile food seeds, according to Rob Manfredi, a small farmer who advocates for the crop in that state. His small sustainability-oriented vegetable farm near Killington took seven pounds of food seeds and despite a 5 percent germination rate produced at least 40 pounds of seed in a season. The plan is to gradually build a seed supply system for farmers without them having to get federal narcotics licenses to have hemp seed.

Vermont farmers have to register with the state agriculture agency to grow hemp, he said. It’s no panacea for the rural economy in the Northeast, but hemp can have a role for growers willing to experiment, he said.

“I don’t think we look at this as the end all be all savior to humanity at all,” Manfredi said. “It’s a strong big part of the picture for getting the small farmers back to work.”

The market may be an obstacle, too. Canada is farther ahead in developing its hemp industry.

In the U.S., as states open to hemp, oversupply may become a problem, as happened in Canada at first, though its market recovered from a price crash and is stable and growing, according to Cherney.

“Most of the world’s hemp is grown in China, with extremely cheap labor, and they would be happy to supply an expanded market,” he said.

Still, hemp is seen as a crop worth trying. Lupardo said a chemical component is being researched for treating medical and psychiatric disorders and is of interest at the Binghamton University School of Pharmacy.

The proposed rules were published in the State Register Sept. 30. The comment period ended a month later, and Ag and Markets expects to publish the final rules before the end of the year.